The pros and cons of website builders

Explore the benefits and failings of off-the-peg website builders.

When I was 13, I attempted to bake a cake from scratch. I gathered all the ingredients and worked my way through the instructions, confident I was on the path to sugar-filled bliss. When I opened the oven, my dreams were shattered. I had missed a crucial step that meant the difference between a fluffy cake and the sad substitute in front of me. After that, for me, box cakes were a bit of a miracle. Suddenly, cake nirvana was achievable.

In many ways, DIY website builders are like box cakes. For a variety of situations, they offer a great balance of ease of use, flexibility and cost. They provide those not familiar with web development an avenue to create their own professional website. There’s something wonderful about that level of dissemination of web authorship.

Why then, with the proliferation of affordable site builders, would a client ever choose to pay an agency tens of thousands of dollars for a bespoke website? In an age when anyone can make a surprisingly high quality website, is there any use for dedicated development agencies?  As a developer at one of these agencies, I would argue that the answer is an emphatic: yes! Here are some reasons why.

Agency perks

One of the most immediate advantages of a custom website is the design itself. While the quality of templates available from DIY solutions has vastly improved, it’s hard to deny that there’s a certain amount of homogeneity amongst them. We live in a world of layer-cake homepages and washed-out stock photos. Even if a website’s message is unique, a generic design can cause it to get lost amidst a sea of visually similar competitors. Having a site that doesn’t just display a client’s product to a user but truly communicates with them can make the difference between a captured sale and a bounced visit.

Another benefit digital agencies bring is their broad base of experience with various external web platforms. A successful site interacts with a myriad of third parties to deliver a holistic experience. DIY builders can provide a certain level of interaction with popular platforms, but how do these builders deal with an outdated financial reports API that still uses SOAP calls and XML responses? A development team can pull together all those disparate threads in a succinct, maintainable way that ensures that the site continues to serve the client for years instead of months.

Perhaps the largest benefit of working with a development agency is also the least tangible: a comprehensive digital strategy. This can often be the most difficult aspect to sell to clients. After all, most sites are relatively simple systems. Is it really necessary to spend hours aggregating existing content, poring over URL structures and creating complex user flow documents?

In 2009, Amazon hired a UX team to help it increase its sales. After a few weeks of rigorous user testing, analysis and brainstorming, it recommended a single change to the registration form. That one well-informed update increased Amazon’s yearly profits by $300,000,000.

In an age when anyone can make a surprisingly high quality website, is there any use for dedicated development agencies?

Without putting in the legwork to deter- mine how users were experiencing the site, Amazon never would have even known there was a problem to solve. A beautiful website with no strategy behind it is like a Bentley without a steering wheel (at least until all cars become self-driving, at which point this metaphor starts to break down).

Creating a site on Squarespace is a great solution for many situations. Like my beloved box cakes, it’s affordable, easy and provides increasingly high-quality results. But when a client needs a site that goes beyond mere adequacy, that speaks to the user in a meaningful way, it’s still vital to work with a talented digital agency.

At the end of the day, companies pour their lives into creating amazing products and services; shouldn’t their website work just as hard?

This article was originally published in net magazine issue 283. Buy it here.


Aaron Speer is a lead developer at Westwerk, where he spends his time finding inventive solutions to difficult problems, and expanding his web toolkit.